As many die-hard Keanu Reeves fans will tell you, the actor first caught the attention of audiences and studio executives with River’s Edge, a disturbing 1986 drama about a group of teens who face moral ruin after helping a friend cover up a murder.
But that wasn’t the only psychologically disturbing movie featuring a young Reeves that was released that year. The other was Babes in Toyland, a made-for-television holiday film that is best remembered as the film where the actor sings. Bear witness for yourself.
The Canadian-raised Reeves originally had set his sights on playing hockey before growing intrigued by performing. Prior to films like River’s Edge and the 1988 psychosexual drama Dangerous Liaisons, Reeves’s affable disposition was on full display. In 1984, he made an appearance on CBC interviewing attendees of the Canadian International Teddy Bear Exposition. In the States, he was featured in made-for-television action films like Under the Influence and Act of Vengeance.
The small-screen projects continued with Babes in Toyland, which paired Reeves with Drew Barrymore (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial). The plot: Barrymore is swept away to a magical fantasy land to assist toy maker Pat Morita (The Karate Kid) against evil toy store owner-turned-tyrant Barnaby Barnacle (Richard Mulligan).
The premise was loosely based on a 1903 operetta of the same name that had been commissioned by stage producers Julian Mitchell and Fred Hamlin. The duo had pulled off a hit with a stage production of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1902. In an attempt to recapture that success, they hired Oz composer Victor Herbert to create the score. Their version of Babes had its characters (named Alan and Jane) navigate a fantasy land with the aid of popular (and public domain) storybook characters like Humpty Dumpty and Little Miss Muffet.
Following that production, Babes was revived periodically—both on stage and in features. A 1934 version was tailored to comedians Laurel and Hardy; a 1960 feature was produced by Disney. By the time NBC mounted a production in 1986, only two original songs from the first production remained and the story was now focused on Lisa, an 11-year-old from Cincinnati who gets knocked on the head and wakes up in Toyland—a kind of budget Oz for Lisa, who was a Dorothy-like stand-in.
Barrymore was just 11 years old when she was cast as Lisa; Reeves was 22. In the film, he plays a friend of Barrymore’s whom she knows as Jack Be Nimble in the storybook world but who is actually a toy store clerk named Alex in the “real” world, and who is also dating her sister Margaret (Jill Shoelen).
The film, which aired opposite an NFL football game and Dallas on December 19, 1986, was intended to be part of the network’s effort to offer family-friendly holiday fare and to compete with CBS’s annual broadcast of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. At a Titanic-esque three hours (minus commercials), it was ambitious—but critics were mixed. The production values of the film, which was shot in Germany, were subpar—even for television of the era. Evening Sun critic Michael Hill declared it “outdated,” and insisted that Old Mother Hubbard was no match for a kid’s other juvenile fascinations like Transformers; Gannett critic Mike Hughes called it a “crummy piece of filmmaking.”
Reeves was not often cited in reviews. One of the few to single him out was The New York Times, which observed that he “looks understandably embarrassed each time he is required to join in another dreary song.”
If NBC executives were expecting Babes in Toyland to become a perennial favorite, they were disappointed. The movie largely disappeared into obscurity, with the network unwilling to carve out three-hour blocks each holiday season for a film few admired. But it still stands as an interesting career point for Reeves, who would soon appear in 1989’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure as well as 1991’s Point Break. It’s difficult to find any comment from Reeves about his network television past, which is probably a sign he doesn’t consider it much of a milestone.